Welcome to the mad house: A monument to the world of the surreal

Within its concrete edifice, the Barbican has built a marvellous monument to the world of the surreal. Tom Lubbock steps warily over the threshold
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The Independent Culture

Surrealism is always coming round, and every time it becomes more and more normal. So if we still believe in it at all, we should hold out for something surprising. And this time there is a surprise.

It's a fun house, a crooked house, a haunted house. It is the name for The Surreal House, which has just opened at the Barbican. Though when you think about it, it shouldn't be such a surprise. Our dreams are often set in houses, and Surrealism believes in dreams. It just hasn't been done.

Specifically speaking, The Surreal House has a twofold lesson: Surrealism and the house, and Surrealism and architecture. And the usual artistic suspects are certainly here: Magritte, Dali, Max Ernst, Giacometti. But the cast is spread much wider. There are obscure Surrealists, and historical pre-Surrealists, and contemporary post-Surrealists, and film-makers and architects too. Surrealism has become – by this date, why not? – more of a mood than a movement. It could mean almost anything. You don't quite know what to expect.

But enter. Enter into semi-darkness. And at once, you're in Freud-land. You can hardly see, but there are two huge deep monochrome photographic drawings by Robert Longo, taken from Freud's front door and his odd stove. Lying between them there's a sinister domestic fitting – a black rubber-cast under-bath, made by Rachel Whiteread, like a sarcophagus or a tomb or a murder prop...

Turn a corner. Set behind glass there's a holy relic of Surrealism, a very idiosyncratic piece of leather furniture – in short, Freud's own customised consulting-room chair, whose supporting back suggests partly a body, and partly a phallus. Most things here are low-lit or spotlit or projected films. Soon enough you're getting acclimatised to the atmosphere.

This is a beautifully constructed show. Compare it to two other London shows from the last 10 years – and this subject tends to turn up very often – Surrealism: Desire Unbound at Tate Modern in 2001, and Undercover Surrealism at the Hayward in 2006. The Surreal House is an actively designed exhibition, architectured by Carmody Groarke. What's more, the Barbican is usually one the more boring spaces. It's been transformed into a switchback-maze. You get round it, without quite realising how they've done it or how you have.

Likewise, Jane Alison's curating is a very rich and inventive piece of work. Each individual chamber has its own spell, and throughout the show strong genealogies can be picked up. For example, there's a recurrent theme of body-equals-building. Louise Bourgeois' Femme-Maison would be one version, a naked anatomy with a head made into a blocky house.

There are the images of Nicholas de Larmessin, one of the Surrealists' 17th-century forebears, his human collages called Les Costumes Grotesques and made of windmills or forges. Or again, from the 1990s, there is a literal flesh-dwelling. Donald Rodney's In the House of My Father is a tiny model of a house made from bits of his own skin removed when he was suffering from sickle-cell anemia.

Or take another running theme. The house is a site for discoveries and secrets. The Czech animator Jan Svankmajer's Jabberwocky plays on the edge of an evil dollhouse world. A stuffed doll filled with straw bursts out with tiny breeding dolls inside. The photographer Francesca Woodman goes through a sequence of haunted rooms, hiding and hunting, and pursued in one scene by an enormous tortoise.

And then you come across a sculpture-tableau by Ed Kienholz. The Wait is a monstrous humanoid old-age creature, a kind of Miss Haversham, waiting in her chair, in her parlour, her body surrounded by and made out of her family mementos, photographs, preserving jars, bones.

Or you can take in a whole house, in a long view, as in Edward Hopper's spooky House by the Railroad (which could be a strange daylight anticipation of Bates Motel). Or go into deep, dirty detail, like Man Ray's photo of Dust Breeding, or Noble and Webster's Metal Fucking Rats, their copulating silhouette made out of rubbish and projected into a corner of a room.

Like good estate agents, we tour the various locations all around the house – except, it seems, the one obvious place, for sex and dreams, the bedroom, which is more or less ignored. Still, if you wonder more generally what might be included, and what might not, it is very hard to say.

Surrealist? Strictly speaking, I haven't mentioned many actual Surrealist works. Sure, many of the things I have mentioned are convulsive, disturbing, disorienting, marvellous, delirious, uncanny, etc. – but then many things would be. Likewise, when it comes to a house, it can be a very free-form metaphor. A house can be an organism, a container, a structure, a machine, an interior, a cage, egg, womb, box, cave, skull – in short, poetry. Maybe The Surreal House just turns out to be a very enjoyable bit of curating, without too much of an agenda.

Which is fine. But it's nice to hold onto something. And if the art seems slightly fluid, perhaps the architecture will offer firmer distinctions. Le Corbusier made an apartment in Paris, in 1931, where there was a chambre à ciel ouvert. It was an outside roof terrace, pretending to be a domestic interior room – a grass carpet, a fake fireplace, with a low wall, over which the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe poked.

In 1974, there was a project devised by Gordon Matta-Clark under the heading of "Anarchitecture". His Splitting is a completely sawn-through three-storey house, from top to bottom. Light shines through a gap. And both of these spectacles might come almost literally from a painting by Magritte. But the point is, one of them is clearly habitable too. The other isn't.

So buildings seem to push the issue. Surrealist art may be disquieting or delightful or a bit of both. Whatever, it can remain a safe form of play. It never really has to raise the stakes. But a Surrealist house, that's something else. Either it's a dream or it isn't a dream. Either it stands or it collapses.

Not, I guess, that The Surreal House would really welcome any strict difference between a blueprint and a vision. That's always the Surreal style. It would prefer walls between fantasy and fact to come down. And it's true, you can't always tell. Which of these constructions were actually made?

Take Rem Koolhaas's Villa Dall'Ava. Supported on high fine poles, it resembles the poles in Dali's Sleep. And this one is visibly built, too. But what about the experimental architectural cooperative Coop Himmelb(l)au practice, and its Villa Rosa? It's a dwelling made of attachable inflatable spherical modules. Nice idea, but it was only a hypothetical model.

But then what of Frederick Kiesler, who coined Correalism, and worked endlessly on his biomorphic Endless House, part spaceship, part cave? Never built, but not entirely a fictional proposal. So in fact the status of architecture is even more puzzling than art. We never know whether an unbelievable building can be built, until it actually is.

Meanwhile there are other more basic functions, though equally vital in their own way. Take an installation by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. Set in a wall, in an obscure corner, there are two of the shabbiest pair of double doors you might ever hope to find, lettered TOILET in capital Cyrillic. A dim light is flickering behind. Of course they might open. Of course they don't. We'll never know. Come to that, the real toilets in the Barbican are often very hard to track down too.

The Surreal House, Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2 (020 7638 8891) to 12 September

For further reading:

'Surrealism (the World's Greatest Art)' by Michael Robinson (Flame Tree)